The winter of 2021-2022 has only just begun, which may make some people happy or depress.
This part, however, I think we can all agree, is a happy development: the season will be seen as a breakout year for snowy owls in Wisconsin.
As of Jan. 4, wildlife watchers reported 143 snows in Badger state, more than double the number in each of the past three winters, according to Ryan Brady, conservation biologist at the Department of Natural Resources.
This is the first irruption – or great flight south of Arctic breeding birds – into Wisconsin since 2017-18.
The great white owls have delighted audiences across the Midwest to the eastern United States and as far south as Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
A snowman hangs out in Washington, DC, and has been photographed sitting on fountains, killing and eating rodents and chasing pigeons. All visitors should be so helpful.
And thanks to a high-tech snowy owl project, we know one of the beautiful birds is back in Wisconsin.
It’s a kind of homecoming story for a bird named Fond du Lac.
The owl, a fourth year female, was trapped and tagged by Gene Jacobs on February 23, 2020, along with two other snowies, near Waupun.
Fond du Lac was fitted with a GPS-GSM transmitter as part of the SNOWstorm project, an owl research effort started in 2013.
It got its name in honor of the Société Fond du Lac Audubon, an anonymous donor who had subscribed to the $ 3,000 cost of the transmitter.
After being released, Fond du Lac migrated north in April 2020 and nested that summer in the eastern Ungava Peninsula in Quebec. That winter she went further north to the pack ice south of Baffin Island, then last summer she nested on Baffin Island.
Last fall, it decided to move south, migrating south to James Bay in November where, for the first time in 18 months, its transmitter was within range of a cell phone tower.
The thousands of data points made the SNOWstorm researchers feel like “kids at Christmas,” said project co-founder David Brinker.
But Fond du Lac’s journey was far from over.
It continued south to Ontario, then to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and on December 14, it officially returned to Wisconsin when it flew over Marinette and settled in Oconto.
She stayed there until December 17, then flew the next day to Lower Green Bay, where she spent 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Cat Island resort.
At 6 p.m. on December 18, it began a flight southwest over Green Bay, probably within sight of Lambeau Field. She was flying 35 miles an hour, according to data from her transmitter.
At 7:00 p.m. she was at the northeast corner of Lake Winnebago.
She spent the next two days on the state’s largest inland lake, at one point about 10 miles from her namesake town.
Time spent on Lake Winnebago also included at least a stretch when she was riding a drifting iceberg, Brinker said.
He made the interpretation from a revealing series of slowly moving data points (about 0.3 miles per hour) for five consecutive hours on December 19.
The tactic can be very productive when snow owls hunt waterfowl.
On December 20, Fond du Lac spent a few hours in the northwest of Lake Winnebago, then flew south to Oshkosh and continued its tour west on the lakes above Poygan, Butte des Morts and Winneconne.
It was not his first time on the water. She spent a week in March 2020 on Lake Winneconne.
Wouldn’t you like to know if her memory brought her back? Or what if the habitat and conditions caused her to visit the same place twice almost two years apart?
On the evening of December 21, she picked up and flew east to Manitowoc County where she spent the next two days. On December 23, she moved a little further north to Algoma.
The visit to Badger State was about to end.
The last Fond du Lac, Wisconsin data point was recorded at 9 p.m. on December 23 in Algoma.
The next recording took place at 1 p.m. on January 6, while she was in the northern part of Michigan’s “mitten,” or lower peninsula.
The gap in data points was likely caused when Fond du Lac’s transmitter went into sleep mode due to a very low battery, Brinker said.
January conditions in northern Michigan, where lake-effect snowstorms are common, are not optimal for solar charging.
It may therefore take some time for the data to start arriving regularly again.
On January 9, Fond du Lac was about 15 miles east of Indian River, Michigan, and about 10 miles south of Black Lake.
Perhaps she knows that Black Lake is home to Michigan’s largest population of lake sturgeon.
Much like its namesake town sits on the shores of a world famous sturgeon lake.
Where will Fond du Lac go next?
Brinker said she is likely looking for an area with an abundant prey population where she can settle for the rest of the winter and grow fat.
When it comes to interstate travel, it’s a snap for snowmen, Brinker said.
Over the past seven years, the SNOWstorm project has tracked 93 snows in the United States and Canada, including 15 with transmitters in Wisconsin.
“Remember these are arctic birds, so she’s traveled thousands of miles,” Brinker said. “We will continue to observe and learn what Fond du Lac and the other birds have to teach us.”
Information on the SNOWstorm project: The project, carried out almost entirely with volunteers, raised more than $ 250,000 through crowdfunding and is the largest snowy owl tracking effort in the world, organizers say.
The project was co-founded by David Brinker, a native of Racine who now works as a wildlife biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, along with Scott Weidensaul, Mike Lanzone, Norman Smith and Steve Huy.
For more information, visit projectnowstorm.org.